Becoming a parent to my own parent

Becoming a parent to my own parent

My mother and I argued a lot while I was growing up, and we continued this pattern well into my adulthood. I had assumed we’d continue it permanently, long after she grew old, and even after she died. I knew I was perpetually doomed to argue with her, alone in my head. I am fortunate that I no longer need to do this.

Leslie Nassau, left, and her mother, Jeanette Ginsburg, in 1999.

Much is written about the pressures on those who care for their aging parents and young children simultaneously. But there is no good answer for the pain inside when you become responsible for the life of another, a life that is no longer filled with promise.

My mother lived relatively independently until age 87, maintaining her own apartment, driving her Oldsmobile. It was very important to her to not be a burden on anyone. When a friend questioned the wisdom of cancer surgery at her age, this outwardly passive yet strong-willed woman said, "There’s something there. I have to take care of it."

The successful cancer surgery initiated a physical decline, medical complications, and major pain for three years.

She relinquished her precious apartment and moved into a nursing home.

During her last three years, without any specific conversation, we grew into a peaceable understanding and mutual respect, even though we never overtly discussed our differences. We were already too aware of each other’s weaknesses. In her late 80s, we gradually experienced each other’s strengths.

My mother handled the inevitable with an amazing amount of awareness and grace, without fighting against as much as fighting for. She fought to preserve her dignity and to maintain some control over her world amid the gradual degradations of physical frailty, loss of independence, and vanishing privacy. "Old age is not for sissies," she often said. Throughout, she continued to be genuinely appreciative and unfailingly considerate of those who cared for her.

I saw an inner strength I didn’t know existed. Supposedly we don’t change as we grow older. We only become a more-clearly delineated version of the person we have always been. At first I was sure I was seeing a new side of my mother. Then I realized that this was her inner side, only stronger.

As I began to respect her for her handling of the present, I found myself re-evaluating my memories of the past. Perhaps, just perhaps, my interpretation of earlier events was not objective. Perhaps it was not even correct.

I learned something about myself, too, and what I am capable of. It has never been easy for me to share the physical intimacies of hospitals. It is no easier now. But I did give more than I thought I could. I’m very proud of that. But how could I not give when my mother could not "do for herself," as she phrased it. All she wanted was to return to normality.

Although I have always thought of myself as the problem-solver in the family, my mother didn’t often consider my advice necessary, or welcome. Frequently I felt like I was fixing things she didn’t realize were broken.

Now we both knew there were real problems to be solved, continually. The need for an attentive physician who would prescribe for her as an individual, not as a generic old person. A way to make the increasingly frequent emergency room visits less onerous physically and mentally.

She came to appreciate me for what I did and for what I tried to do. She mentioned it only infrequently, a quiet thank you, nothing effusive. I would have been embarrassed, by her need and by how little I had really accomplished. I know she respected me and valued what I consider a defining part of me. I like to think of it as the good part of me.

I thought we had not shared much because we rarely shared "mine," my inner life. We were close but not that kind of close.

But we had shared more "ours" than I realized. "Ours" included the birth of her first great-grandchild, my first grandchild. Despite many emergency room visits for herself, I was able to bring her to this same hospital, this time to the maternity wing. Less than ‘4 hours after he was born, she held her great-grandson in her arms. Eight days later we celebrated his bris. For a brief period we were both "Grandma." I didn’t realize how much we shared until it was too late to share this knowledge, too.

What good can come from this painful process? If we are fortunate, we grow personally. You learn how you can go beyond what you thought you could give, and yet continue giving.

When we were children our parents helped us cope with scraped knees and social offenses, real and imaginary. Now they cope with physical hurts and social insults — the loss of physical privacy and all the repeated insults that come with it.

As they come full circle, do we come full circle in our love and understanding of ourselves and each other? Does our perspective change when we recognize in ourselves the same traits we dislike in our parents? We can acknowledge that our parents may have been doing the best they could at the time. We can resolve disputes from childhood, even if the resolution is in our own heads.

Did any good come out of this? Yes.

Was it worth the pain and suffering?

For her? It is not for me to say.

For me? Yes, but…. Would I have asked her to go through this for the good that did result? Of course not.

But I feel fortunate that we had the opportunity to make peace with each other, and I to make peace with my younger self.

Leslie Nassau’s published writing includes both fiction and non-fiction. She lives in Hillsdale.

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